FOR OVER 30 YEARS experimental archaeologist Jacqui Wood has been quietly working out how our Northern European ancestors went about their day-to-day lives
words: Eilidh Nuala Duffy
images: Eilidh Nuala Duffy and Cecile Tulkens
ORKNEY has an overwhelmingly primeval climate. Its concentration of prehistoric structures is staggering; lost lives of old exist in tandem with the uncomfortable modern tarmac jutting, crisscrossing through the landscape. The monstrous wind accounts for a lack of trees, giving the rolling green hills of these islands so much of their barren seduction. There is a heady sombreness to the place, even in mid-May when life finally begins to creep back into its stratum. Then the orcas come, gracing the cobalt surface of the Scapa Flow, their spectral fins bidding a vague goodbye as the pod moves onwards north.
The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall traces a past incubated over thousands of years of physical isolation from both mainland Scotland and its more similar sister, the old Northern European lands of the Norse. From the ground floor, working upwards, we can trace the people of these islands from the depths of the prehistoric, through the time of the Picts and Vikings, until we emerge with an understanding of Orcadians living today. It was here, in the grips of a hot melange of history, that I first encountered a woman named Jacqui Wood.
An experimental archaeologist by trade – the study of how people did things in the past through trial and error – in 2001 Wood had been commissioned by the museum to replicate The Orkney Hood, a child’s head-covering from the Iron Age found intact within a peat bog on one of Orkney’s blustering moors. The hood was formed of wool from medium-brown moorit sheep, the kind you see with a naturally brown fleece, bleached from its years in the elements. Creating the replica was a tricky affair. It was concluded through Wood’s own efforts that four different people had spun wool for the bulk of the hood, all at different thicknesses. Another charming conclusion was reached: that parts of the complex weaving and the fringed base of the hood were reused from an older garment. One which, by the looks of things, Wood could tell was made for someone of a much higher status. It was only by her close inspection and knowing eye that the story of the hood could be revealed.
The original is housed in the National Museum of Scotland. In the centre of Kirkwall Wood’s little woollen replica remains. I left Orkney as springtime came into full bloom and by autumn, as the orcas disappeared completely, I was trundling down the A303 with a team of three prehistory enthusiasts – the stylist Jack Appleyard, knitwear designer Cecile Tulkens and filmmaker Harry Hughes – to meet her.
Wood dwells in Cornwall, a landscape akin to that of the northernmost parts of Scotland and one which shares a similarly murky history. There’s a discernible line – an ancient trading route – which can be traced down the west coast connecting Orkney to Wood’s land, a hidden valley named Saveock (pronounced sav-ee-yok) just a stone’s throw from Land’s End, the tip of the tail of this reptilian-shaped island. Until recently it had been accessible only by foot, cut off by the river running through it (once an ancient waterway and, rather miraculously, an underground river which has been traced back to a glacier in Norway) and the train tracks to the north. She takes great pride in how little people know about her home. The neighbouring village are mostly unaware of her presence apart from a thin stream of locals who come to fill up gallon bottles with the sweet glacial water running through Saveock. Most other freshwater sources in Cornwall have been destroyed by millennia of tin mining. Being the only totally unpolluted river around – and, with a glacial source, far cleaner than water from the tap – it is said to have healing properties. They leave little offerings of fruit, veg or wine for Wood in their wake. She’ll put in an order before they come to avoid them all bringing the same thing. It would be disappointing if they all brought broccoli. Cheap, too.
For 35 years Wood has been the guardian of her secret valley. She’s on an agricultural tenancy from Lord and Lady Falmouth, some “seriously landed gentry” who’ve been there for “700 years – 13th century, proper”. In true archaic fashion, rent is due on Lady Day in spring and Michaelmas in the autumn and she will be able to pass on her lease to her grandchildren, given they’re interested in taking it over. Wood likes to live with one foot in the past. She’s been building roundhouses on her land since 1992 with only one remaining as a relatively modern addition. The local school kids used to come on trips to learn about prehistoric life à la Jacqui Wood. When waiting for the groups to cross the train tracks she would sit in her fabricated village and spin wool with an Iron Age spindle whorl just as those who lived in those houses all those years ago would have done. Occasionally she’ll meet one of the kids all grown up – they always remember her.
At 68 years old Wood has one of those faces you can’t forget. Lines are scored around her eyes from years of laughter, cheekbones jutting out with sharp rosy skin taught across them. Tinted blonde hair frames an ancient face, something from the prehistoric; weather-beaten, robust with a piercing gaze. From the framed photographs dotted around her quaint little farmhouse you can see she has been quite striking since youth.
“I always made a point of having no training in anything I do” she grins. Wood took up the study of ancient living over 30 years ago but training as an archaeologist was never on the agenda. Her work is built on the idea that “the inherent skills and ingenuity of the prehistoric” are still engrained in each and every one of us today. A world authority in her field, her knowledge spans every aspect of prehistoric daily life from cooking (on which she’s written a book emphatically named Prehistoric Cooking) to metalwork, pottery and weaving. Her workshop, a little outhouse just next to her home, is filled with ancient-looking bits and bobs. Shelves are packed full of contraptions made primarily from the naturally occurring materials you can find just about anywhere in the world, sticks and stones clearly being the most popular. It is from these elements that she makes her spindle whorls and looms to weave using ancient techniques she has studied for over 30 years.
In 1997 she was commissioned by the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy to produce another ancient textile discovered on the body of the Otzi Ice Man. Found in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, Otzi is Europe’s oldest known intact human corpse dating from around 3300 BC making him well over 5,000 years old. She was tasked with replicating his look including scabbard, shoes and famous cape formed from bands of grass woven with lime tree bast to create a very wind and weatherproof covering. Trousers, she tells me, were not invented until the Iron Age “for riding, up until then it was leggings and a loincloth”. Bracae, the etymological root of breeches, were worn by both Celtic peoples in Europe and those hailing from what is now modern Asia. For the Romans it was only these barbarians – the savage non-Romans who populated so much, too much of the world – who would be so brazen as to cover their legs in such a way.
It was the grass which eventually brought us here on a brisk October afternoon. “This is the coldest it’s been so far” Lottie Hinton, friend and one third of Wood’s regular team announces as she arrives with her mother Sarah. It’s the first week that winter’s return can be felt and we’re all sat freezing in Wood’s workshop, space heater whirring away in the corner. We’ve been warned not to get too close for fear of setting ourselves on fire. “Oh yeah, the old boy with the sheepskin coat” Lottie recalls with a lick of pleasure at the memory, “that was one of our many bizarre occasions here, he just stood there patting it to try and put it out”. When wool burns it releases cyanide, they didn’t want to risk another toxic mistake.
The Mother-Daughter duo started working with Wood around nine years ago after making the move from Essex to Cornwall. They now seem to help with most aspects of her work including ancient cooking, weaving and technology demonstrations and the annual training dig on her site. They’ve been called in to help teach us strange city-dwelling outsiders how to twist grass into pleats which can then be sewn together to make whatever kind of thing you like. Today we’re focusing on hats and bags – the small stuff, good for beginners. Wood is making a tie – slightly more advanced. “You literally cut it, make it, no processing”, it could not be simpler, quite incredibly so. But today I am unable to share with you this ancient life hack as Wood teaches courses on the various skills she has developed herself and it is made clear we are privileged to be at her home learning for free.
Wood made the decision to live in Cornwall when she was just a teenager, spending most of her hippy years tripping out amongst the hills. After raising her kids and getting divorced the one solid thing she has left is Saveock. It’s Wood’s land, Wood’s place – she refers to everything as her own and wants no outside input or influence. There’s a credence held between Wood and those close to her that Saveock has the power to keep people away. They weren’t entirely sure if we’d make the cut.
A map of the Saveock dig site – each little dot marks the location of a find
In 1998, after returning from an archaeology festival in Biskupin, Poland she decided to cut an ancient furnace into a grassy hillock just in front of her house. When digging the trenches to try and build a protective hut she discovered something quite unexpected – a clay floor peppered with stake holes and a small piece of worked flint. For anyone who’s ever watched Time Team, you know this is when it starts to get good.
Remnants of the huts made by hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic period, the stake holes date from about 8500 BC. In a panic (she wanted to be able to preserve the archaeology properly) Wood buried the site again and didn’t look at it for another three years. But in 2001 with a little help from the local A-Level Archaeology teacher and their students she had a fully-fledged archaeological dig site in her front garden.
Over the years she has unearthed a plethora of amazing finds. The list currently includes the only Neolithic crystal hearth in known existence; a Bronze Age metalworking furnace just like the one she’d tried to make; a pair of sacred Neolithic pools in the shape of ovaries which are allegedly responsible for the pregnancies of two of Wood’s students; some giant deer and aurochs hoof prints which are 20,000 years old but look like they could have been made yesterday; and a medieval pool in which she found the largest collection of votive textiles in Britain alongside human hair and nail clippings. The list goes on and there’s still so much to dig.
Looking at a squelchy patch of mud with untrained eyes, it’s hard to imagine that so much history lies underneath. But in Cornwall where there are so many ancient monuments lying above ground, why wouldn’t Wood’s modest home be keeping secrets such as these? “You see how that’s greeny clay and that’s orange?” she asks. I nod in agreement, making a little sound as I do. Is it green? I don’t know, it’s mud. But here, where anything seems possible, I think it might be green.
Xanthe Parkins, Shamanic Healer and occasional visitor to Saveock, believes the site has been used for thousands of years as a healing place. But there’s a darker side to the site. The most unpleasant of Wood’s finds are the strange sacrificial pits dotted all over her garden, affectionately known as the “witch pits”. The oldest she’s had carbon dated (it costs £350 a pop from her regular lab in Florida) dates from the 1640s – during the civil war – and the most recent, rather gut-churning-ly, from the 1970s. Each pit is lined with some kind of animal; there’s a swan, a dog, a cat, some magpies – one pit is even filled with 22 unhatched chicken eggs – all preserved perfectly in the clay. The one from the 1970s is a kid, a baby goat, and you can watch Wood unearth it in real time on the Saveock Youtube channel – it’s their only video.
Perhaps Wood should tread a little more carefully. Across the train tracks there lies a house which harbours tales of witchcraft. A man now lives there alone, the nephew of two sisters who may or may not have been responsible for the killing of the goat. After Angelika Franz, a reporter for the German newspaper Der Spiegel, visited her pits in 2009 she received an email from a man who chose to be known as Daniel. “While I’m no historian” he wrote, “I know about these beliefs as they are still being practised in North Western Europe”. Daniel is part of a lineage of “wise women” who pass their knowledge down the female line. His family are still working their magic today. Daniel believes it is very possible that the house on the other side of the tracks is practising an old pagan religion which miraculously survived the medieval witch-hunts.
But Franz, who has been reporting on archaeological digs for her entire career, believes the site with all its superstitious tales to be simply “very British”. There are “so many more stories of ghosts, fairies, spirits and creatures connected to certain places than we have on this side of the Channel” despite a history just as long as that of Britain. Perhaps it is the isolation which allows these stories to survive in their original Celtic language of which there are still so many dialects in frequent use.
It is in Wood’s roundhouse where these superstitious tales seem closest. In the early evening Wood and the Hintons leave us to finish making our little grass trinkets. They’re preparing for our prehistoric feast. At around 7.15pm there’s a knock on the workshop door. We jump. As the day had succumbed to night it had been hard not to let the imagination run wild with crooked thoughts of sacrifice and witchery. Wood’s pits lay only 100 metres away and who’s to say that the animals had been the only offerings made to those mysterious gods – or goddesses.
“We’re ready for you!” Sarah beckons. We follow her in a line through the bluish dark, the sky above a royal sort of blue, glowing against the black silhouette of the landscape. I clutch my silly little iPhone with its torch alight. I needn’t have bothered, our way is lit by lanterns with stars cut out, candlelight peeping through in imitation of the falling night. Jack runs into the outhouse to pee as we continue through a small field. “Should we wait for Jack?”, Harry calls. I don’t see the point, it’s pretty well lit. The dark was now welcoming, not unnerving.
“Watch your feet”, we’re shuffling down a little muddy slope and – “fuck”. I catch myself as I’m met with a protruding mass of pure blinding roundhouse. It really is quite impressive. At 24 feet high and god knows how wide, it’s thatched head rises like a sleepy giant out of the dark copse of trees. It took a local team of volunteers meeting every Sunday 18 whole months to build. “It wasn’t the building so much as actually getting the materials” Wood tells, “we had to go to the marshes and cut the reeds, had to go the forests and cut the trees…” It took 15 people 15 days to harvest enough reeds for two “rounds” (or layers) of the thatch – there are 11 in total.
Based on the remains of an Iron Age roundhouse found in Blackpatch, Sussex, the skeleton is made up of large oak trunks harvested from the top of “an Iron Age hill fort near Truro…so actually they’d grown out of roundhouses and then been put in one” saving any further damage to the archaeology caused by their roots. The walls were then constructed from wattle and daub, an age-old technique where you “stick a sort of post in and then fill it with hazel”, covering it with “a mix of silt from the river and straw and soil and water”.
Sarah draws back the patchwork chamois leather “door” for us, weighted down by rocks to stop it from blowing in the harsh Cornish wind. The scene inside is jaw-dropping. Poised upon a little bench beside a blazing fire in the centre of the room, her creviced face illuminated by the crackling light, Wood greets us with a smile, wine glass in hand. She laughs as we stare in disbelief. In the 36 years Wood has been building roundhouses she’s become so accustomed to them that she often forgets to tell visitors that this one even exists. Next to her, crouching beside the flames is Lottie, the lady’s servant, cooking breads on what looks like a gothic pizza peel, cauldron literally bubbling away beside her.
“Yeah. And then there’s windows and you can lift those up and hook them on the top, there’s one here. And there’s a clome oven there which we’ve got our pudding in! Keeping warm. Then we’ve got a loom here, a warp-weighted loom”, she describes these treasures all made by her own hand. Everything, that is, except a 3,500 year old quern stone used for grinding ancient grain she just happens to have lying about.
For all of Saveock’s strange magic, work never ceases to be done. Wood is utterly convinced there’s a cave nearby which would, she believes, be the largest jewel in her ancient crown. The residue crystal she’s been finding all over her site points in only one possible cavernous direction. “This is not just a site, it’s a spiritual centre” and when she opens the cave she just knows there’s going to be something of incredible importance – “like Stonehenge” Parkins tells me. Archaeology permits and diggers, however, are not cheap. It’s the scale of it which is her hindrance. Wood is very wary of letting outsiders influence her dig and is not willing to accept any kind of funding despite some interest from a “couple of American Universities”. If she accepted their help and what they discovered was truly incredible, she might no longer be able to live in her home. It’s her Saveock after all.
She has some of Europe’s “top rock art archaeologists” on speed dial, just waiting to call and tell them – we’ve opened the cave! But first she needs the money so she’s come up with a masterplan. For 15 years Wood has been working on a series of novels set in the Mesolithic era, “a sort of cross between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter set in the Stone Age” and she plans on getting them turned into a TV series. The reason she’s been writing is “not for me to get a nice car or something” but to fund the excavation of the cave.
It’s been rough since the recession in 2008. With less students enrolling on her summer digs she’s looking to other means to come up with the cash. “I know that one day somebody will come along and they’ll be into the book and they’ll know somebody and they’ll tell them about it”, she addresses us, “and they’ll know somebody, and they’ll know somebody, and they’ll happen to be the somebody who knows somebody who knows Netflix is looking for something new and original.” Wood thinks that Saveock let us visit her to do exactly this – so if you’re out there and you think you’ve got an in with Netflix, please do let us know.